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  • David Babbs

Online Harms Legislation in Queen's Speech (again)

The government included a commitment to an Online Harms Bill in today's Queen's Speech. It's very welcome to see that this agenda has survived the election.


The relevant parts of the background briefing detailing the government's plans are pasted below, and the full PDF can be viewed here.


This is the second speech of the past few months, with the last having taken place just before parliament was dissolved and the December 12th General Election called. We offered some first thoughts on the proposals in that previous Queen's Speech here.


One noteable difference between the two documents is that a commitment, present in October, to "pre-legislative scrutiny", has now been replaced with a commitment to "prepare legislation to implement the final policy in response to the consultation." This could suggest an added sense of urgency to deliver legislation, which would be welcome overall, though we noted in October the importance of careful drafting in such a new area of legislation and the benefits pre-legislative scrutiny can bring.


Overall, we're pleased to see the new government has renewed a commitment to legislating on Online Harms. We look forward to making the case for this to include new requirements for large social media platforms to improve their design, with a view to promoting improved online discourse, and for this to include measures to tackle the misuse of anonymity.



What the government announced today:

Online Harms
“My ministers will develop legislation to improve internet safety for all.”
● Britain is leading the world in developing a comprehensive regulatory regime to keep people safe online, protect children and other vulnerable users and ensure that there are no safe spaces for terrorists online.
● The April 2019 Online Harms White Paper set out the Government’s plan for world-leading legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. The Government will continue work to develop this legislation, alongside ensuring that the UK remains one of the best places in the world for technology companies to operate.
The proposals, as set out in the White Paper were:
○ A new duty of care on companies towards their users, with an independent regulator to oversee this framework.
○ The Government want to keep people safe online, but we want to do this in a proportionate way, ensuring that freedom of expression is upheld and promoted online, and that the value of a free and independent press is preserved.
○ The Government is seeking to do this by ensuring that companies have the right processes and systems in place to fulfil their obligations, rather than penalising them for individual instances of unacceptable content.
Next steps:
● The public consultation on this has closed and the Government is analysing the responses and considering the issues raised. The Government is working closely with a variety of stakeholders, including technology companies and civil society groups, to understand their views.
● The Government will prepare legislation to implement the final policy in response to the consultation.
● Ahead of this legislation, the Government will publish interim codes of practice on tackling the use of the internet by terrorists and those engaged in child sexual abuse and exploitation. This will ensure companies take action now to tackle content that threatens our national security and the physical safety of children.
● The Government will publish a media literacy strategy to empower users to stay safe online.
● The Government will help start-ups and businesses to embed safety from the earliest stages of developing or updating their products and services, by publishing a Safety by Design framework.
● The Government will carry out a review of the Gambling Act, with a particular focus on tackling issues around online loot boxes and credit card misuse.
Key facts
● There is a growing threat presented from online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. In 2018, there were over 18.4 million referrals of child sexual abuse material by US tech companies to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Of those, there were 113,948 UK related referrals, up from 82,109 in 2017.
● Terrorists also continue to use online services to spread their vile propaganda and mobilise support. All five terrorist attacks in the UK during 2017 had an online element. There is majority support among adult internet users for increased regulation of social media (70 per cent), video sharing (64 per cent) and Instant Messaging services (61 per cent).
What the Government has done so far:
○ The joint DCMS-Home Office Online Harms White Paper was published in April 2019. The Government also published the Social Media Code of Practice, setting out the actions that social media platforms should take to prevent bullying, insulting, intimidating and humiliating behaviours on their sites.
○ In November 2018 the Government established a new UK Council for Internet Safety. This expanded the scope of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, and was guided by the Government’s Internet SafetycStrategy.
○ The UK has been championing international action on online safety.The Prime Minister used his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to champion the UK’s work on online safety.

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